Why not a Dalit priest?

Deepavali in White House
Why not a Dalit priest?
By Kancha Ilaiah

Let not the NRIs work for creating religious frictions by presenting one
section’s festival as Indian festival.

The Non-Resident Indians of North America have
been trying to convince the White House that they should recognise the
Deepavali festival as American national festival by celebrating it in White
House. They made such efforts during the Bill Clinton period but failed. Then
they tried very hard during the George W Bush term and again failed.

However, they succeeded during this time in convincing the Obama
administration that it should celebrate the Deepavali festival in the White
House. On the Deepavali day, Obama attended a celebration organised by
Indians in the White House and lit a lamp. The main representative of India
on the dais, along with Obama was an Indian Brahmin priest with a shaven head
and semi-naked body covered with a Pattu Vastram and a dhoti. He also sported
big three fold Vaishnava ‘namam’.

Assuming that the NRIs were not willing to present a homogeneous Hinduism by
keeping a Shaivaite priest also, the basic question that does bother is: does
that priest represent Indian Dalits-Bahujans who hardly have any space in the
Hindu religious temple structures?

The NRIs living in America used Obama’s black background to convince him to
attend the celebration and give a respectability to Indian-Hindu culture.
What they have ‘hidden’ from Obama and his administrative staff was that in
India still the Hindu priestly caste does not allow millions of Dalits to
enter Hindu temples and they treat them as untouchables.

We were all a witness to Obama’s oath taking ceremony where the black pastors
played a key role, though there were white pastors side by side. In spite of
an attempt to raise a controversy around his own pastor Jeremiah Wright,
Obama refused to disown him.

Since Hinduism does not even give such a scope to Dalits and other backward
castes, they are forced to remain unequal and outside its ritual
celebrations. No Dalit-Bahujan is allowed to become a priest in any
mainstream Hindu temple.

For a long time the American blacks faced a similar denial of spiritual
rights (though there was no untouchability) within the white church. The
blacks fought for decades to fight such spiritual racism and over a period of
time they gained the right to go to the white church. But the blacks were not
allowed to ordain as pastors and lead the church system. To counter such
discrimination the blacks started their own churches, which have become a
whole religious system in themselves. All great black leaders emerged from
that black church.

Whether it were the first major black leader, Frederick Doglas of Abraham Lincoln’s
times, or Martin Luther King who emerged as the greatest leader of the civil
rights movement and won a Nobel Peace prize at the age of 38, all were black
pastors in black churches. Even Obama emerged as a political leader, while
working in the black community church.

When the Indian casteist forces celebrated the Deepavali in the White House,
the Indian community would have realised that it would have destroyed his
race neutral administrative apparatus if they did not take a Dalit priest to
the White House. They should have done that, at least, to tell the world that
the NRIs do not believe in caste discrimination and untouchability.

Some of these NRIs were raising objections as to why the Congress House
Committee of Human Rights (called the Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human
Rights and International Operations in the United States House of
Representatives) heard the Indian delegation in 2005 about the existence of
discrimination based on caste and untouchability in India.

Back in India Sri Sri Ravishankar, Ramachandra Guha and others accused us
(myself, Joseph D’Souza, Udit Raj and Indira Atwale were the main deposers)
as people who were indulging in internationalising the internal problems. How
do these so called reform seers and intellectuals respond to celebration of
Deepavali in White House and that too with a Brahmin representing Indian
culture? Suppose the Kerala NRIs ask for celebration of Onam in the White
House, who will represent that festival? Would a Bali’s heritage Shudra
represent it or a Brahmin from Vaishnava tradition?

Do not these intellectuals, so called seers and NRIs understand that
Deepavali as it is being celebrated today is an anti-Dalit-Bahujan festival
as Narakasura, who was killed was a Shudra himself? How could a festival that
celebrates the death of an Indian Shudra be considered as a secular festival?
Secondly, how does Deepavali represent India as a cultural festival when
India is a country of multi-religious people?

The only festival that can represent all Indians is Independence Day (August
15) celebration. Let the NRIs not work for creating religious frictions by
presenting one section’s festival as Indian festival. Let the NRIs stop
globalising communalism and casteism also in this from. Let Obama’s
administration realise that there are 200 million Dalits who cannot celebrate
Deepavali as a festival in India.

This is the reason why the Obama administration should have asked for the
presence of a Dalit priest on the occasion of celebration of the Deepavali in
the White House.




A Dalit Temple to ‘Goddess English’


Chandra Bhan Prasad, a Dalit intellectual, activist and a bit of a maverick, has for several years been trying to promote fluency in English as the key to the liberation of the people at the bottom of India’s caste system from what he sees as the caste prejudice inherent in Indian languages like Hindi.

He usually hosts a party on Oct. 25, the birthday of Lord Babington Macaulay, the man who got the Raj authorities to adopt English as the language of higher education in India (he also drafted the 1860 penal code that India still uses today). Many Indians criticize Lord Macaulay for creating, in his words, “a class of persons, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect,” to act as native interpreters between the British and India’s multitudes.

He was fairly successful and even today many of India’s upper classes think and write in English. For decades some Indian intellectuals have wondered (often in English) how to gain the standing for other Indian languages that English – and those educated in English – have.

Mr. Prasad has no time for such concerns. Today he is presiding over the laying of a foundation stone for a temple dedicated to “Goddess English” in a village in Uttar Pradesh state, about 350 kilometers east of New Delhi. He hopes the temple will be completed by Lord Macaulay’s birthday.

“In cities, people are somewhat aware of the importance of English,” said Mr. Prasad ahead of the trip. “In villages, not much. So I wanted to trigger this sort of recognition.”

The 2009 Annual State of Education in India report found that about 51% of schoolchildren in rural India can both read and understand simple sentences in English by the time they get to Class Eight, usually at age 13 or 14, after which many children leave school.

So why a temple and not an English teaching center, scores of which can be seen in cities and towns all over India?

“I cannot reach large masses of people. I do not have the infrastructure to provide English instruction to scores of people,” said Mr. Prasad. “If you say English is a goddess, worship it, then the message is much better.”

Among the design conceits on the drawing board: the front pillars of the temple could be mounted on concrete shaped like computers, the steps are to resemble a computer keyboard, and a “fountain pen-shaped elevated object” is planned on the roof. There will also be a statue of an anonymous gentleman “in a coat, wearing a hat and who sports specs or sunglasses,” said Mr. Prasad.

“These are all symbols of modernity and I want to inject that into the very childhood of Dalit kids,” he said.

If anything Mr. Prasad, who has a flair for being polemical, seems to think Lord Macaulay didn’t take his Anglicization project far enough. Mr. Prasad says his own aversion to Indian languages extends to “native dress” as well as language although he hasn’t extended that injunction to people visiting his Macaulay parties. He points out that along with many other caste-based restrictions, Dalit men were not allowed to wear the full-length version of the dhoti, a wrap worn over the lower part of the body.

“English attire is caste-neutral,” said Mr. Prasad. “In India, the dress of the people differs from caste to caste. But the architecture of the trouser is same for everybody.”

By Tripti Lahiri

Dalits look upon English as the language of emancipation


Dalits look upon English as the language of emancipation

Dalit activists argue that English not just opens up job opportunities, but also helps ease the caste and power constraints that come with speaking regional languages

New DelhiI dream of an English full of the words of my language.an English in small letters and English that shall tire a white man’s tongue an English where small children practice with smooth round pebbles in their mouth to spell the right zha.

When Meena Kandasamy wrote these lines, almost like a petition, pleading that her roots be allowed to flourish in English, she was just 18 and fresh from the unusual loss of her poetic name: Ilavenil.

Aspiring for change: Tamil poet Meena Kandasamy is one of a growing band of Dalit intellectuals who look at English as a key to progress.

Aspiring for change: Tamil poet Meena Kandasamy is one of a growing band of Dalit intellectuals who look at English as a key to progress.

The Tamil name meant “spring” but often became the subject of ridicule for the young Dalit poet when many said it sounded like the name of a train. “I winced in horror and wept on my pillows. Within my own state, this name was a clear giveaway of my Tamil origins: it was devoid of Hindu/Brahminic/Sanskrit roots. I wanted a name people could accept,” she recalls.She later adopted her nickname Meena to escape the predicament, and in response to any question posed to her in Tamil, she spoke in English. “I want this new tongue to accept me. I expect it to appreciate my sensibilities, admire my culture and, above all, be accommodating,” she says.

Kandasamy is one of a growing band of Dalit intellectuals who are rooting for English, arguing what was once a language of imperial power is now a language of emancipation.

Though a borrowed language, she says, English earned her recognition. Poems in Kandasamy’s first book Touch, written in English and published in 2006, have been translated into five languages. “It doesn’t operate with the Dalits alone. English takes your voice to a larger level and helps in your search for solidarity…(with) like-minded people, people who want change.”

Kandasamy’s engagement is part of an emerging struggle in the journey of English in India: the Dalit aspiration for progress and a growing demand for schools teaching the language.

In Coimbatore, the second largest city in Tamil Nadu, a massive English training project is under way. A seven-month-old programme designed by the British Council under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), a flagship programme to put every child in school, is training teachers in government-funded schools to teach communicative English better. The real beneficiaries, says Alison Barrett, head of the council’s Project English for State Partnerships, are children from marginalized sections who attend such schools.

Also Read Previous parts of the series

“English is a way of accessing socio-economic advancement. English, in this country, means a language of power, and if you don’t give them English, they cannot access power structures and effect changes in socio-economic policies,” says Barrett.

To listen linguist and author of ‘Indian English’, Pingali Sailaja, talk about Indian English, its characteristics and structure

(Download here)

In Tamil Nadu, where a strong Dravidian movement in the early decades of the 20th century thwarted the Union government’s plans to impose Hindi as the country’s official language, the English Project has brought within its fold 125,000 primary school teachers and five million children in a short span of seven months.

Thiru. S. Kannappan, SSA’s joint director in Tamil Nadu, who is involved in planning, implementation and monitoring, says the project came at just the right time, when learning levels in the language in state-run schools were ebbing—only around 22% children in the schools in Tamil Nadu can read easy sentences, a recent report by education activist group Pratham says.

Dalit activists argue that English not just opens up job opportunities, but also helps ease the caste and power constraints that come with speaking regional languages.

Far away from Tamil Nadu, in Uttar Pradesh, Dalit thinker and author Chandrabhan now calls for the worship of the English goddess—a symbol of Dalit emancipation.

“Not only is the English language spoken everywhere in the world, respected by the people of all the nations and easily learnt, but the people of the English nation are also impartial and unbiased—and to whichever nation they go, they do not indulge in the base acts of casteism or communalism,” says Prasad, who declared 25 October as English Day in a ceremony in New Delhi last year, coinciding with the birthday of T.B. Macaulay, the British administrator who introduced English education in the country.

“English can fill the gap,” says Alka Gupta, founder of the British Academy for English Language in New Delhi. “It is like Bisleri water—you may go for anything to eat but you do need water. Whatever be your personal qualification, you can’t go far without English.”

This is the concluding part of the series

By Pallavi Singh